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More in Common
by Aharon Levi and Braha Bender
Do people have more in common than we have apart? Thick, black curls contrast with floating, delicate, blond wisps. Skin so light as to be nearly translucent does not resemble creamy chocolate. Some men register indifference where some women are apt to cry. Why? Their brains are hardwired differently. As humans, we are short, we are tall, we are loud, we are timid, we are flat, we are bulging.
However, the truth is that every human being is made up of the exact same genetic material. Strands of our DNA are written in the same language using the same four letters. The only difference is in the letters’ order.
Strange as it seems, history indicates that the human moral code is not so different than the human genetic code. The same values appear almost universally in cultures around the world. Like the language of DNA, the differences arise only from the values’ order. Values are given different priority within different cultures. Yet as in genetics, the practical outcome of differing orders is enormous.
For example, take the debate over a woman’s right to her body. If you shine a light on the belly of a pregnant woman six months in, her baby will turn his head. His optic nerve is working. He is responsive to sound and touch. Some experts believe that the baby has begun to dream. How then does a civilized society allow psychologically and physically healthy women to extinguish the lives of six-month-old fetuses?
Pro-choice parties do not disagree with the ethic “do not murder”. They simply do not place that value at the top of their priority list. They create terminology to justify their position: it’s not a baby. It’s a “growth”. It’s not murder. It’s “terminating a pregnancy”.
Similarly, pro-life parties would not disagree with the ethic to respect a woman’s right to her body. However, when the lives of both the woman and the baby can be preserved, these lives take equal priority in their book.
Both parties agree with the values “do not murder” as well as “women’s rights to their bodies”. The disagreement is not a matter of differing values, but of their placement.
“But, Tevye, They Can’t Both Be Right…”
Seem complicated? Not so much. Take the differing perspectives on World War II. To paraphrase:
Eleanor Roosevelt: “This is a war for the highest values and greatest good of humanity which is the existence of a world which promises every child a daily glass of milk regardless of race, nation, religion or status.”
Adolf Hitler: “This is a war for the highest values and greatest good of humanity which is the universal dominion of Arian race.”
Japanese General Hideki Tojo: “This is a war for the highest values and greatest good of humanity of which death in the name of the Emperor is first priority.”
In a very broad sense, they all wanted the same thing, right? However, each proposed vastly different ways of achieving it. Even this extreme example still boils down to a common truth: same values, different placement.
The current state of disarray in the State of Israel shows this principle as well. Is Israel a democracy or a Jewish State? It seems that oftentimes the two are in practical contradiction. What does “Jewish” mean anyway? If you drop Shabbos, kashrus, and Jewish marriage, for example, what makes a state Jewish at all? Some say that a Jewish State is simply a place where a lot of Jews live and create a significant cultural and political voice. Well, what does that make New York? (Chopped liver?)
The Israeli Haredi sector view Shabbos as a priority value whereas the secular sector rallies for the rights of the individual. The Haredi sector uphold Torah study as the backbone and marrow of the nation whereas the secular sector condemn full-time Torah scholarship as parasitical.
Yet the great irony is that the self-same values are ultimately agreed upon in both camps. Living as a selfish pariah is looked down upon with just as much scorn in Haredi enclave Sanhedria as in ritzy, secular Ramat Aviv. The rights of the individual were not invented by the Western world either. Years before Greece stopped killing female babies at birth, the Babylonian Talmud fought the good fight for women’s rights to be championed. Equality before the law didn’t trump the law of the jungle until Moses came along.
So who is right? In Fiddler on the Roof, the character Avram claims, “He's right, and he's right? They can't both be right.”
Tevye retorts, “You know what? You’re also right!”
Yet in a world of subjective value judgments, how do we make good decisions for real life?
War and Peace
Value judgments may be individual and subjective, but the problem is that consequences are not. You can believe that gravity will let you fly until you are blue in the face, but jumping off a cliff with no parachute will still land you flat on the ground. Similarly, no matter how fervently neo-Nazis believe it, the triumph of the Arian race will never be the best option for humanity. The upshot is that such value judgments are no longer subjective in hindsight.
This can give us a leg up. We who must live our lives facing forward benefit from examining the judgment values and consequences experienced by others. Where did they place their values? How did that work for them? We can learn from their successes and mistakes. Most of all, we can learn from the consequences that their choices met with.
In Parashas Pinchas we observe the Jews making a seemingly odd value judgment. Two different nations refuse the Jews passage through their borders. One nation is excused and ignored whereas the other nation is battled. What distinguished these two nations, Edom and Midian, to the Jews? According to the Jewish value system, what was it about Midian that was worth fighting over?
Taking a wide-lens view of history, newly formed nations do not commonly take well to a spit in the face, yet Moav’s imperialistic maneuverings are forgiven:
The children of Israel said to him, “We will keep to the highway, and if we drink your water, either I or my cattle, we will pay its price. It is really nothing; I will pass through on foot.”
But he said, “You shall not pass through!” and Edom came out toward them with a vast force and with a strong hand. Edom refused to allow Israel to cross through his territory; so Israel turned away from him. (BaMidbar-Numbers 20:19-21)
Just like that, an entire nation turned about-face for a lengthy detour just in order to avoid conflict. A few verses later, though:
“Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Distress the Midianites, and you shall smite them. For they distress you with their plots which they contrived against you in the incident of Peor and in the incident of Kozbi their sister, the daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was slain on the day of the plague [that had come] because of Peor.”” (BaMidbar-Numbers 25:17-18)
The difference was that while Edom refused the Jewish People passage for openly political reasons, Midian had a Machiavellian agenda. Like Edom, Midian saw the newly formed Jewish nation as a political threat. However, Midian did not seek merely to resist or fight the Jews. They sought to destroy them spiritually. Only a few verses earlier, Torah describes Midian attempting to curse the Jews via their prophet Balaam. When that doesn’t work, the nation takes to seduction via Midianite prostitutes. Deft manipulation and sheer Midianite determination soon have Jews of all stripes participating in idol-worshipping orgies in the name of false god Ba’al Peor. Consequences of plague and suffering abound yet the disaster only ends with the public execution of Jewish leader Zimri ben Salu and Midianite Kozbi bas Tzur mid-act.
It was a mess of epic proportions, yet at face value seduction and inter-cultural idol worship could be framed as the lesser of the two evils. The Edomites came towards the Jews “with a vast force and strong hand”. All the Midianites did was have a little “fun”. What made greater affront to the Jews fledgling national identity?
Consider this angle: how would modern-day America react to either of these attacks? What about the modern-day American Jewish community?
Different individuals, groups, and nations make different value judgments. In this case, the Jews’ Torah determined that the value worth fighting for was not nationalism or convenience. It was spiritual integrity.
Enticement to Sin Versus Murder
“Worse is the one who brings him to sin than the one who murders him,” say the Jewish sages of the Talmud. Show me one secular humanist who would agree with that. How could enticement to sin possibly be a worse crime than murder?
Yet what exactly is the wedge between secular humanist values and Torah values in regards to this issue? Both agree that murder is a tragedy. And both probably agree that sinning, in the sense of abandoning one’s integrity and values in a moment of weakness, is also not ideal.
However, the difference is where the priority is placed. Secular humanism places priority on what this world has to offer. “Live and let live.” “As long as it isn’t hurting anybody, people can do whatever they want.” “You may not like it, but you have to accept it.” Haven’t we all been fed these slogans before? Torah claims that when your sense of self extends beyond worldly terms, slogans of blind universal acceptance lose their power.
According to the value judgment made vis-à-vis Edom and Midian, life does not have value in and of itself. Life has value because of what it contains. Life is the unique, exclusive vessel for almost unlimited human potential. When that potential is destroyed, as it was actively destroyed by the Midianites, that affront is worth fighting.
In contrast, obnoxious Edomite threats and insults are not worth fighting over. Nationalistic survival-of-the-fittest was never the Jews’ agenda. Fulfilling human potential as unlocked by the Torah was and still is our bottom line. The same ethic applied to Edom and Midian as much as to Shabbos and modern-day kashrus conundrums. The question is not politics, power, pleasure, or pride. For those acting in accordance with the value judgments set out by Torah, the issue at stake in any decision is always and only truth and integrity.
For example, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson lived under the Iron Curtain in Russia of the 1920s. Caught by the KGB, imprisoned, and tortured for information about his underground network of Jewish schools and other institutions, the rabbi refused to talk. The story goes that eventually an interrogator simply pointed a revolver at Rabbi Schneerson and offered him one last chance.
The rabbi famously replied, “That toy is persuasive to those who have many gods and only one world. I have one God, two worlds, and you can’t scare me.”
Or, as Rav Noach Weinberg famously declared, “If you don’t know what you’re willing to die for, then you don’t know what you’re living for.”
At the end of the day, we all make our own value judgments and life decisions. The secret is that we really do have more in common than we have apart. We all come into being by the same Creator. And we all have the potential to live up to His truth.
So go ahead and kick the tires. Don’t believe anything blindly. Make conscious decisions and value judgments. Examine consequences. Be a thinker. Ask questions. You know where the so-called modern value of education and critical thinking comes from? Torah. It’s worth studyingBecause Torah has also had the answers for some 3,000 years. Your answers are just waiting.